Saturday, August 30, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Different

What to make of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin?

The Democrats have helpfully given me their opinion. Everyone from Chuck Schumer to Rahm Emanuel to an Obama spokesman have attacked Palin’s lack of experience – a potentially risky strategy for the party whose ticket topper was sworn in as Senator, bought supplies for his Senate office, and on the way back from Staples announced his Presidential candidacy.

And I caught a little bit of conservative talk radio on the way home yesterday and Sean Hannity was talking as if Governor Palin was the reincarnated combination of Ronald Reagan, Annie Oakley, and the Statue of Liberty.

So you need an unbiased, objective opinion, and that’s what I’m here to offer. Well, maybe not objective, and certainly not unbiased – but unlike the folks above, it’s at least honest.*

* I mean, really, doesn’t it get embarrassing being a partisan sometimes? Every Democrat in America has been loudly proclaiming for months that Obama’s lack of experience doesn’t matter, and now they will all take to the airwaves and cocktail parties and blogosphere assailing Palin’s inexperience. And every Republican in America has been loudly proclaiming for months that Obama’s lack of experience is a terrible risk, and now they will all take to the airwaves and cocktail parties and blogosphere proclaiming that the PTA Presidency is excellent experience for the American Presidency. The intellectual dishonesty is staggering.

Anyway, back to my opinion. I’ve given it some thought, and can state with certitude and authority that the selection of Governor Palin as nominee for Vice-President of the United States is the most brilliant stroke of American political genius in the 21st century…or the stupidest freakin’ thing a major political party has ever done. It’s definitely one of those things.

Unlike professional politicians, whose opinions shift hourly depending on circumstances, I have long held that experience in the White House is of dubious value. Some of our greatest Presidents have had scant political experience, and some of our weakest were (to borrow David Brooks’ phrase) Resume Gods. Because of that, predicting a President’s success or failure is fool’s work – so this piece will focus strictly on whether or not it was a smart political move.

The Case Against
I’m not sure if you’ve heard this, but John McCain is old. How old? Lou Gehrig won the MVP the year he was born. Winston Churchill was still four years away from becoming Prime Minister. When a young Brett Favre won his first Super Bowl, McCain already qualified for senior tickets at the movies. If McCain serves two terms, he’ll celebrate his 80th birthday in the White House. These are not Jay Leno jokes – these are actual facts. The dude’s old.

So I always assumed that he absolutely must choose as his running mate a person that Americans believe is White House-ready. And Governor Palin’s resume is not reassuring on that count.

Further, it makes it harder for McCain to hit Obama too hard on the experience front – which is clearly McCain’s biggest strength. It’s as if the Lone Ranger threw away his Silver Bullet.

The Case For
Now it gets interesting.

First of all, her inexperience is mitigated by Obama’s own inexperience. Obama has been in the Senate two years longer than Palin was Governor, but the Governorship is executive experience, and Obama has spent nearly his entire Senate "career" running for President. Only one of them has ever run anything of any size, and it’s Palin.

Second, her biography is compelling. A son going to Iraq on September 11? Another with Down’s Syndrome? A husband who is a champion snow machine racer? (I don’t know what that is exactly, but I’m almost certain it’s more manly than spin class). Her own skyrocketing rise from City Council to the Governorship to the Vice-Presidency? It’s exciting stuff, and will engage a voting public who may have Obama/McCain fatigue and is already bored by Joe Biden.

Third, she’s a woman. It’s a bold play for the millions of Hillary voters who haven’t warmed to Obama and guarantees that the Republican ticket, if victorious, will be nearly as historic as the Democratic ticket.

Fourth, her socially conservative views, to judge from early accounts, will help McCain with the conservative wing of his party, where he is weakest.

Fifth, she’ll be hard to attack. Let’s face it – you go after the mother of five whose son is in Iraq the way you might go after a Dick Cheney, and the voters will not approve. The Democrats need to be as careful with Palin as Republicans have been with Obama.

And sixth, it reminds everyone that John McCain is a maverick. Much of the Obama strategy depends on linking McCain with Bush, which always struck me as a stretch. McCain’s personal biography, his long-documented history of working with Democrats, his party’s own ambivalence towards him, and his bitter Bush battles in 2000, all argue against a McCain Administration being the second coming of Dubya. An unconventional pick like Sarah Palin reminds everyone that McCain is not the product of focus groups or Rove-like puppeteers.

Presence & Gaffes
Voters and pundits often underestimate how important physical presence is in national candidates. Most are tall, reasonably attractive, have good voices. Unlike our Senators and Governors, we have to actually live with these people for years. I have long felt that Hillary Clinton’s national ambitions were doomed in part because of a grating public speaking voice.

Palin looks like Tina Fey with good posture (that’s a compliment). And she impressed me in her appearance with McCain yesterday – she delivered her speech with a pleasant and natural speaking voice. This can go a long way.

So, in conclusion, she can be an impressive wild card that tips a close election, especially if she can draw in only a fraction of the Hillary votes.

But if she has a terrible gaffe – says the Iranians are Sunni, for example, or confuses the Federal Reserve with the Treasury Department – or if McCain has a health scare – this will be an election-losing choice.

This election keeps getting better, don't it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, particularly the point about partisan dishonesty, which you can cut with a trowel on both sides of the aisle.

For myself, though, my money is on a gaffe, and not even a very big one -- everyone is looking for it so hard it'll practically manufacture itself.

Oh, and howdy.